Friday, July 6, 2018

Five Questions before Daytona

Credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
by Lisa Janine Cloud

SLIDE JOB! SLIDE JOB! 

Surely that call will go down in NASCAR history. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s full-time booth debut with NASCAR on NBC last Sunday coincided with one of the best races of the season and certainly the best that the mile-and-a-half Chicagoland Speedway has seen. The final laps of the action-filled race featured another episode of the Kyle and Kyle show. Kyle Larson’s attempted slide job prompted Junior’s excited yell of “Slide job! Slide job!” that will probably be as closely associated with him as his 2004 comments in Victory Lane at Talladega have been.

The next race has the unenviable task of meeting the bar set by the drama at Chicagoland. At any other track that might be a challenge but that next race is at Daytona International Speedway, which holds three of the top ten closest margins of victory since electronic timing and scoring began and where the last three July races have been decided by less that three-tenths of a second. If any track can produce a race that’s as exciting as Chicagoland was, it’s Daytona.

Both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Xfinity Series run the high banks of Daytona this weekend. But before the green flag drops, I have a few questions. Let’s look at those first, shall we?

Can Ryan Preece hold off the Cup guys to score another win? In all three of his starts in 2018, Preece has scored top-ten finishes, including his jubilant Dash4Cash win at Bristol in April. He hasn’t been in an Xfinity car since then but told the media at Daytona on Thursday, "I'm racing all the time. I was in a seat last Wednesday.” In Joe Gibbs Racing equipment, the young short-track racer has demonstrated that he has plenty of talent, but will that transfer to a superspeedway restrictor plate race? Since his debut with JGR, he hasn’t finished out of the top ten, but none of those were at superspeedways. His two Daytona starts were with Johnny Davis in less than optimum equipment. Can the Connecticut native keep his streak alive or better yet, make it to Victory Lane?

Can an Xfinity Series regular make it to Victory Lane? So far in 2018, Xfinity regulars have only managed to win once when there were Cup drivers in the field. This weekend only Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Larson will pull double-duty, but Larson has two lower-tier wins this season and Blaney has one. Still, this is Daytona, and JR Motorsports has won five of the last nine starts at the 2.5-mile track, including the last two. Which way will the scales tip? We’ll have to tune in Saturday to find out.

Will anyone join the “Big Three” before the Playoffs begin? Ten of the 17 races this season have been won by just two drivers. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have each claimed five checkered flags, though one of Harvick’s won’t count toward the Playoffs. Martin Truex Jr. has three victories, so he’s being lumped together with Harvick and Busch in what’s being called the “Big Three,” as if they have already claimed three of the final four spots. With only nine races left before the Playoffs begin, which driver and team can step up their game enough to take the fourth spot? Or will another driver emerge as a contender and push Truex out of the picture?
The shortlist of candidates includes two-time winner Clint Bowyer, whose No. 14 Ford comes out of the same stable as Harvick. Bowyer’s having his best season since 2012 with 10 top-ten finishes and more laps led than in his last four seasons combined. Kyle Larson, the only Chevy that seems to have a chance at giving the Bowties another win this season, has shown speed and skill, but can he actually win races? Will Daytona be a tipping point for a team? We’ll have to wait to see.

Can defending race-winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pull off another plate race win? The Stewart-Haas and Penske Fords have been fast this season, but Stenhouse and the Roush-Fenway Fords don’t seem to have the same speed. Last season the driver of the No. 17 car earned his Playoff berth with victories at both Talladega and Daytona, but this season he finished 29th at Daytona and fifth at Talladega. Can he pick up the pace and claim another plate-race win? I think maybe Roush-Fenway has too many self-imposed obstacles to give Stenhouse the support he needs to win.

Can Daytona put the defibrillator paddles to Bubba Wallace’s season? The rookie driver of the iconic No. 43 started the season with a second-place finish in the Daytona 500. While he’s shown flashes of speed since then, he’s steadily fallen to 24th in points with an average finish of 22.1. Will the equalizing effect of restrictor-plate racing give Wallace the boost he needs to make the last half of the season better than the first half? I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking, but it would sure be fun to see Wallace running up front.

Tune in Friday night at 7:30 p.m. for the Xfinity Series Coca-Cola Firecracker 250, broadcast on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Saturday night the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Coke Zero Sugar 400 also starts at 7:30 p.m., broadcast on NBC. 

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